Will the next Labour leader stay the course with Fine Gael?

Gilmore’s downfall may bring forward the date of the next general election

 Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs  Eamon Gilmore at the announcement of his resignation yesterday: his successor will be under extreme pressure to rebuild a battered party. Photograph: Eric Luke

Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore at the announcement of his resignation yesterday: his successor will be under extreme pressure to rebuild a battered party. Photograph: Eric Luke

Tue, May 27, 2014, 01:00

The Coalition faces a prolonged period of uncertainty after Eamon Gilmore’s abrupt resignation. In question for weeks to come is whether Labour will elect a successor who can stay the course with Fine Gael or who will lead the party out of Government.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny was quick to declare last evening that Gilmore assured him Labour remained fully committed to stable Government and the completion of the mandate to repair the public finances and create jobs. But that pledge is from an outgoing leader who has just led Labour into a devastating electoral defeat. It will be for Gilmore’s successor to plot the party’s future course in the Coalition.

As news of the Tánaiste’s departure emerged yesterday, the conclusion was quickly drawn in Leinster House that his demise will ultimately bring forward the date of the next general election. Exactly when remains unclear. But the potential for serious political disruption in the short term is clear, even if the new leader vows to resolutely maintain the bond with Fine Gael. The prospect of the Coalition surviving until 2016 is another matter entirely.

Having lost scores of council seats at the weekend, Labour TDs are now confronted with their own electoral mortality. This is the prism through which the election of the new leader will be viewed. The same goes for decisions made in the crucible of Cabinet. Faced with the titantic task of renewing a battered party as the Government collects new taxes, Gilmore’s successor will be under extreme pressure from the off.

Whoever wins will take office in July, just as the budget estimates campaign gets under way in earnest. So the immediate question will be whether Labour, under new management, can settle with Fine Gael on a fiscal plan for 2015. This presents an immediate existential test for the Coalition, and the challenge will be all the greater for the leadership contest to come.

Key battleground The key battleground in the race to succeed Gilmore will be economic policy. Be it Joan Burton, Brendan Howlin, Alex White, Arthur Spring, Alan Kelly, Seán Sherlock or any other contender, this element of the debate is likely to centre on the drive to boost take-home income and provide badly needed relief to hard-pressed families.

There are other big policy questions on the agenda – housing, medical cards and the like – but the bottom line remains that relentless pressure on income lay behind the crippling wound the party suffered last Friday. Emphasis on that front might well appeal to the Labour activists who will vote for the new leader. But meaningful progress in the next budget will be exceedingly difficult to attain, even if Fine Gael wants to achieve much the same thing.

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